We should stop and pause over stop and search

First the good news.  As a 47 year old woman living in Edinburgh, I am unlikely to be stopped and searched by the police.  Last year, only 21 women like me were. The Big Yin – male, 23 – is more likely to be stopped and searched: last year, 362 were.  Good job he doesn’t live in Glasgow where 2,886 young men like him were. And while only 282 wee boys aged 11 (like Boy Wonder) were stopped and searched by police anywhere in Scotland last year, this last is the real worry. Hundreds of children under 12 – the age at which the law deems children capable of prosecution for a criminal offence, incidentally – were stopped and searched between 2013 and 2014.

In total, an astonishing 640,699 people in Scotland were stopped and searched by police, the vast majority of them supposedly consensual.  More alarming still is the fact that most (84%) of these consensual searches resulted in nothing being found.

Since these figures emerged, there has been something of a stushie about the use of this policing power and how it is being used. Police Scotland’s Chief Constable, Sir Stephen House, would like a consensus to emerge around the use of stop and search powers. Wouldn’t we all.

Sadly, that position seems to be at odds with the rank and file. One presumes that the Scottish Police Federation’s Secretary General, Calum Steele, was acting with the consent of his members (aha!), when he launched an extraordinary broadside at MSPs. His missive begins by questioning politicians’ role in this debate: “the events of the past week have resulted in a frightening narrative that politicians believe that they are in a position and indeed have a role to play in determining how and when police officers exercise their right to stop and search someone.

That is before he goes on to betray an alarming ignorance – similar to that with which he castigates our MSPs – about the habits of Scotland’s children. There’s a lot of generalist denouncing going on, with precious few statistics to back up his own narrative. Apparently, it is “an absolute reality” that “many” children roam our streets, “many smoke from pre-teens, many more drink and yes some occasionally carry weapons and drugs”. Police officers have to deal with “thousands of calls”  involving pre-teenage youngsters – that’s weans to you and me.

Yes, but how many of them are found to be committing criminal offences? And how many of them were reasonably suspected to be in possession of drugs, or an offensive weapon, or alcohol (if on the way to or from a football match), or stolen property? Data is scant, while hyperbole, it would seem, is not.

So far, there has been an awful lot of heat generated on this issue, with strong views being expressed not just by the police, but also by the Scottish Human Rights Commission, commentators, legal experts and yes, politicians. It’s a debate of sorts, but let’s not just ramp up the volume: now is the time to stop and pause and consider calmly the rights and wrongs of this weapon in the arsenal of modern policing. Let’s all use the remarkable space created by our recent conversation with ourselves to stop and pause and consider this – what kind of Scotland do we want to be? How should a small country of some 5 million folk want to be policed?  What is the role of the police in a 21st Century country where crime is falling? What is the purpose of the criminal law and who is it there to protect and provide for?  How should our society want to treat and protect our most vulnerable citizens, especially children?

Stushies like this create opportunities. The appetite for serious contemplation and consideration of big, meaty issues has not waned since the referendum: it is still there. People are interested in their present and in their future and we should all seize upon that. For stop and search is a microcosm of the bigger debate we held – who has power, control and responsibility and how should each be wielded?

We should have a Commission – not a parliamentary inquiry – but a body set up by the First Minister. Use the emerging structures post referendum, as well as existing ones, to encourage debate. Importantly, let’s make sure those who are most likely to be subjected to stop and search are included, especially children and young people.

Let’s explore what the law actually says on stop and search and whether or not we need such operational methods of policing.  And if not, what might replace it.  If it stays, what does consensus look like?

I might rather naively believe that most people’s view might be quite different from the police’s. That stopping and searching people with or without consent is not a right of police officers but a responsibility to be taken seriously and used proportionately, a measure set out in law. That politicians do have a role in providing legislative empowerment and scrutiny of how well statutory duties work, as well as a democratic oversight over the institutions which have power over how we live our lives.

I think we might well agree that the use of consensual stopping and searching of individuals should be a last, rather than a first resort. And further that children under the age of 12 can never consent to such an invasion of their privacy. We might conclude that children – like the rest of us – have human rights and that we adults have a duty to uphold and protect those rights. We might agree that no child under 16 should, in fact, ever be stopped and searched by the police, except under clear and unequivocal, exceptional statutory conditions.  In doing so, we might want to ponder how we arrived at a situation whereby the supposed upholders of law and order in our communities found themselves using the very same arguments about consent that some use to justify why they sexually abuse children. We might also conclude that far from our streets being alive and teeming with feral children up to no good, that most children are law abiding and those who are out at night inappropriately are often there because it’s safer than being at home. And what might we want to do about that, hmm?

Far from being an operational policing matter, the power to stop and search is one bestowed by statute. It comes with conditions in which it might be used. The figures suggest that police might not be applying those conditions fully in the use of this power. In aiming for a consensus then, we might want to debate how we got here, to a place where it would appear that the police in Scotland no longer thinks the law applies to it in some circumstances, and perhaps worse, that it thinks it has the right to operate outwith the law as and when it likes. Perhaps, we are happy, as a nation, as communities, with this situation and agree that the police need the widest possible powers, indeed even powers they don’t actually have, to do all they can to keep us – and children – safe.

Until and unless we have a mature debate, where no voice is loudest, and all have equal weight, where we listen and consider respectfully to each other’s point of view, while thinking about the small details and the big picture in terms of society, rights, law, power, control and responsibility, then the stushies will continue.  And I think Scotland is ready to be better and bigger than that.

Beware the snollygosters

It would appear there is an election in the offing. Voters might think it’s someway away, but not the parties.

Despite those astonishing Ashcroft and YouGov polls suggesting that it’s operation wipeout, Nicola Sturgeon hit the campaign trail in Glasgow yesterday, calling on her not insignificant pool of 93,000 potential activists, to chap every door between now and polling day. She’s right to take nothing for granted and her party would do well to heed the call: there might well be work to be done.

After all, there is truth in the cliché that the only poll that matters is the one on the day. And here’s Jim Murphy making a virtue out of hard work, cancelling any plans his MSPs might have had for a week half-term break, telling them all to get out and campaign like the election was a week to go. At least, he’s now admitting his party is in trouble, big trouble.

Both teams were out in my patch yesterday, but no sign of the Lib Dems in what is still a Liberal Democrat seat. That might be because they’re targeting a different demographic of voters in this constituency. With only 12 weeks to go, targeting resources, energy and time at the right groups of voters is key. Basically, Labour and the SNP are after the same ones.

I was surprised just how many times I was asked how I would appeal to this type of voter or that in my crash-and-burn attempt to become a candidate – it’s okay, there will be no gnashing and wailing, I’m nearly over myself.  To me, it’s self-evident where the SNP has to go to win seats all across the central belt. Indeed, the polls are like a great big X marking the spot: to the once staunch Labour vote must they go. Yes, the Lib Dem vote has collapsed in these same constituencies but think on this – it was never huge to begin with, except in one or two areas, nor is it so easy to track down in geographical or community terms.

Still not convinced? Well, why do you think Jim Murphy’s targeted campaign strategy is to prevent 190,000 Labour voters who voted Yes becoming SNP voters? This is the battleground where all those seats on those ginormous projected swings will stand or fall. And it’s vital that the SNP in its local domains gets this and focuses all its attention on those voters.

Because in those last few vital days of the independence referendum, whisper it, but the other lot had a better get out the vote strategy than we did. The No camp shifted to identified core vote and what’s known as knocking it up, far earlier than Yes did.  At the time, I thought this a weakness, a sign that undecideds who had been edging up the scale towards a Yes were now ours and that Better Together had given up on persuading them. Yet, the fact we were still out there trying to persuade them was the issue. The No camp had done enough to slow the snowball hurtling down the mountainside throughout September gathering momentum towards yes and actually halted it before it subsumed everything in its wake. As in all other referenda, a majority of those still umming and awing on the day broke for the status quo.

Here in Edinburgh, No’s get-out-the-vote activity was co-ordinated city-wide and run largely by Labour. It was organised, targeted and focused. And the fact that few of us noticed it at the time means it worked as the stealth operation it was designed to be. Anyone who thinks that it could not be replicated in Glasgow or in the towns all across the M8 corridor needs to think back to the 2012 local government elections. Despite what the polls were saying, Labour dug out a vote and I’m not sure we understand how yet.

Whether or not they will be able to snatch such victory from the jaws of defeat yet again is unclear. When the mood of a nation appears to have turned so decisively, the ability of a tribe – much depleted these days in any event – to descend onto streets en masse at 5pm on polling day and sweep every eligible adult along to vote is no longer a strength but a weakness. Adopting these tactics of old might just help deliver SNP MPs in their bucketload.

Conversely, does the SNP have to do anything other than surf the wave of public opinion? Does it need to know where its vote is going to come from at this election? I’ve often wondered what might happen in a control experiment of a local campaign staying at home – completely at home – to see if all those local leaflets, footslog, A boards and door chapping actually does make a difference, or if it really is all down to national campaigns, narratives, messaging and media dominance.

This though is not the campaign for the SNP to try such experiments. For, despite what the polls are saying, the difference between shaving Labour majorities wafer thin and actually winning the seat will come down to local candidates and campaigns: the SNP might have a shiny team of fantastic people lined up to fight this election, but Labour has its snollygosters.

Twitter introduced me to this new word this week. Apparently, a snollygoster is someone, especially a politician, who is guided by personal advantage rather than consistent, respectable principles. There are good people in the Labour movement – still.  Some of them are even MPs and they are now fighting for their political lives. And all the trappings that go with it. There are few career options out there for former politicians, not in Scotland; certainly, none so lucrative as the sinecure on the green benches. And that aside, what to do when your entire life has been politics, politics and more politics?

Some Scottish Labour MPs will have peered over the abyss and not liked what they see at the bottom. They will by snollygosting for all they are worth for the next twelve weeks and the SNP needs to match them if those poll numbers are to translate into wins.

Send sexism off in the General Election campaign

Women for Indy send off sexism pledge

Yesterday, Women for Independence launched a campaign to root out sexism and send it off in the General Election campaign.  The movement – of which I am a part but not the only woman involved nor a leader nor a spokesperson – believes that everyone should welcome and foster the increased participation of women in democratic life, whether they campaigned for a Yes or a No vote in the referendum.

“Women should be able to raise their heads above the parapet without being a target for sexism or personal abuse.” you’d think that might be a given in 21st Century Scotland but apparently not. Already women have been targeted; some have been subjected to online abuse like this: “She’s what you might call a political prostitute whoring herself to whoever will have her.” (about a female SNP candidate).  There’s also a hideous cartoon doing the rounds grotesquely caricaturing a prominent Labour MP in the same vein.

Apparently, some women are carpet bagging and careerist now some activists have decided to do what men in their parties have been doing for generations – seeking to become candidates and MPs.

Frankly it’s unacceptable and it’s why Women for Independence is calling on all parties, all party leaders, candidates, activists and party staff to sign up to its campaign and code of conduct.  Already, the campaign is delighted to have secured the backing of the SNP and the Scottish Greens – it is hoped that Scottish Labour, which is at the heart of a great cross party initiative in the Scottish Women 50 50 group, will follow suit.  And of course, the Scottish Conservatives and Liberal Democrats too.

The campaign calls on everyone involved or going to be involved in the UK General Election campaign in Scotland to pledge that:

  • they will conduct a democratic, respectful campaign that concentrates on political issues
  • no personal abuse will be directed at rivals
  • women will not be objectified or subjected to sexist language or behaviour
  • where there are panel discussions, all parties will insist on gender balance
  • where abusive or sexist behaviour occurs, parties will make clear that they do not tolerate it from their members, staff or representatives

The referendum saw women – of all ages, backgrounds and demographics – get involved in participative politics to an astonishing and probably unprecedented degree in Scotland.  It is in the interests of all who believe in democracy to ensure that this Westminster election campaign leads to even greater women’s participation and that women do not get put off ever getting involved again.

You can support the campaign by tweeting and sharing the pledge on your social media and if you’re a candidate sign up and say you’ve done so publicly.